Saturday, March 28, 2020


"Tightly-folded bud."  This is the first line of Philip Larkin's "Born Yesterday," which was written in January of 1954 "for Sally Amis" (Kingsley Amis' daughter) to celebrate her birth.  I thought of the line each afternoon this past week as I walked past the low-hanging branches of trees that are now in bud.  As I write this, two lines by Larkin from "The Trees" (that lovely poem of spring) come to mind: "The trees are coming into leaf/Like something almost being said." Everything changes.  Every thing changes.  Nothing changes.


Some ask the world
        and are diminished
in the receiving
        of it.  You gave me

only this small pool
        that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
        me with sourceless light.

R. S. Thomas, Experimenting with an Amen (Macmillan 1986).

Bertram Priestman (1868-1951)
"The Sun-Veiled Hills of Wharfedale" (1917)

Thousands of buds at the tips of twigs, yet each in its own singularity: delicate and full of intent.  "Tightly-folded bud."  A flower of leaf. Mostly shades of green, though often streaked, speckled, or swirled with browns or yellows or reds.  Suspended beneath the sky, precarious.  But lucent, potent with life.  And, from all around, the singing of robins.

               The Bright Field

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.  But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it.  I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it.  Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past.  It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

R. S. Thomas, Laboratories of the Spirit (Macmillan 1975).

Francis Armstrong (1849-1920), "Cader Idris, Snowdonia" (1918)

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

A Thought In Passing

The neighborhood dogs are quite pleased with the current state of affairs.  People are working at home.  The schools are closed.  The weather has been lovely.  What better thing for a family to do than take a walk, or frolic in the park?  I have been doing so nearly every afternoon for many years, and I always return home in a state of contentment.

Look at the dogs walking with their families, or chasing a ball in the park:  they seem a bit perplexed by this sudden turn of events; but, dwellers in the moment that they are, they couldn't be happier -- more time with the people they love!  We humans are alone with our thoughts, as ever.  Well, thinking about the plague isn't going to change anything.  Why not go for a walk?  You never know what you may come across as you fare through the World.

               The Mayo Tao

I have abandoned the dream kitchens for a low fire
     and a prescriptive
          literature of the spirit.
A storm snores on the desolate sea.

The nearest shop is four miles away.
     When I walk there
          through the shambles of the morning
for tea and firelighters,
     the mountain paces me
          in a snow-lit silence.

My days are spent in conversation
     with stags and blackbirds;
          at night fox and badger
               gather at my door.

I have stood for hours watching
     a salmon doze
          in the tea-gold dark,
for weeks watching a spider weave
     in a pale light, for months
listening to the sob-story
     of a stone on the road --
          the best, most monotonous
sob-story I have ever heard.

I am an expert on frost crystals
     and the silence of crickets,
a confidant of the stinking shore,
     the stars in the mud.

(There is an immanence in these things
     which drives me, despite
          my scepticism, almost
     to the point of speech --
          like sunlight cleaving
     the lake mist at morning
or when tepid water runs cold at last from the tap.)

I have been working for years
     on a four-line poem
          about the life of a leaf.
I think it may come out right this winter.

Derek Mahon, Poems 1962-1978 (Oxford University Press 1979).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Springtime in Eskdale" (1935)

Saturday, March 14, 2020


As ever, spring arrives in fits and starts.  On a sunny day, there seems to be no stopping it:  the deep green lawns and fields are bordered with purple, yellow, white, and red.  The next day, a cold wind settles in.  Up in the grey sky, the branches -- budding, but still empty of leaves -- click and clatter, and the thick limbs groan.  A lone goose passes overhead, calling.  Where has its flock gone?  Out on a wide meadow, a group of crows stand in a circle, quarreling.

Yet, as I noted in my previous post, a threshold has been crossed:  the cherry trees have begun to blossom.  You may recall, dear readers, that I am wont to visit A. E. Housman at cherry blossom time.  To wit:  "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough . . ."  But I have been reading Horace's odes recently, so this year a translation by Housman of one of the odes will take the place of my old standby.

                        Diffugere Nives

The snows are fled away, leaves on the shaws
     And grasses in the mead renew their birth,
The river to the river-bed withdraws,
     And altered is the fashion of the earth.

The Nymphs and Graces three put off their fear
     And unapparelled in the woodland play.
The swift hour and the brief prime of the year
     Say to the soul, Thou wast not born for aye.

Thaw follows frost; hard on the heel of spring
     Treads summer sure to die, for hard on hers
Comes autumn, with his apples scattering;
     Then back to wintertide, when nothing stirs.

But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
     Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams:
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are,
     And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Torquatus, if the gods in heaven shall add
     The morrow to the day, what tongue has told?
Feast then thy heart, for what thy heart has had
     The fingers of no heir will ever hold.

When thou descendest once the shades among,
     The stern assize and equal judgment o'er,
Not thy long lineage nor thy golden tongue,
     No, nor thy righteousness, shall friend thee more.

Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain,
     Diana steads him nothing, he must stay;
And Theseus leaves Pirithoüs in the chain
     The love of comrades cannot take away.

A. E. Housman, in Archie Burnett (editor), The Poems of A. E. Housman (Oxford University Press 1997).  This is the seventh ode of Book IV of the Odes.  "Diffugere nives" are the opening words of Horace's Latin text, and may be translated as "the snow disperses" or "the snow melts."

One can understand why this poem appealed to Housman.  There is a lovely anecdote about Housman and the poem.  The anecdote has appeared here before, but it is worth revisiting.

"During my time at Cambridge, I attended [Housman's] lectures for two years.  At five minutes past 11 he used to walk to the desk, open his manuscript, and begin to read.  At the end of the hour he folded his papers and left the room.  He never looked either at us or at the row of dons in the front.  One morning in May, 1914, when the trees in Cambridge were covered with blossom, he reached in his lecture Ode 7 in Horace's Fourth Book, 'Diffugere nives, redeunt iam gramina campis.'  This ode he dissected with the usual display of brilliance, wit, and sarcasm.

"Then for the first time in two years he looked up at us, and in quite a different voice said:  'I should like to spend the last few minutes considering this ode simply as poetry.'  Our previous experience of Professor Housman would have made us sure that he would regard such a proceeding as beneath contempt.  He read the ode aloud with deep emotion, first in Latin and then in an English translation of his own.  'That,' he said hurriedly, almost like a man betraying a secret, 'I regard as the most beautiful poem in ancient literature,' and walked quickly out of the room.

"A scholar of Trinity (since killed in the War), who walked with me to our next lecture, expressed in undergraduate style our feeling that we had seen something not really meant for us.  'I felt quite uncomfortable,' he said.  'I was afraid the old fellow was going to cry.'"

Mrs. T. W. Pym, Letter to The Times (May 5, 1936), in Richard Gaskin, Horace and Housman (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), page 12.

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "From My Studio" (1959)

The snow has vanished and the cherry blossoms (soon to flutter down in a drift of petals, alas!) have arrived.  But this is never the end of "change and chancefulness" (Thomas Hardy, "The Temporary the All"), is it?  How could it be otherwise?  Why would we expect it to be otherwise?  (With the exception, in my case, of wishing to spend Eternity lying in the grass on a never-ending late summer or early autumn afternoon, looking up into the green-leaved, sun-and-shadow-mottled, wind-swaying boughs of a tree.)

Marcus Aurelius has wise words for us:  "How ridiculous, and like a stranger is he, who is surprised at any thing which happens in life!" (Marcus Aurelius (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor), Meditations, Book XII, Section 13.)  Spring is here.  But not for long.  Anything is possible.


The kind of rain we knew is a thing of the past --
deep-delving, dark, deliberate you would say,
browsing on spire and bogland; but today
our sky-blue slates are steaming in the sun,
our yachts tinkling and dancing in the bay
like racehorses.  We contemplate at last
shining windows, a future forbidden to no one.

Derek Mahon, Collected Poems (The Gallery Press 1999).

Derwent Lees (1885-1931), "Aldbourne" (1915)

Recently, the robins have changed their tune.  The flat, matter-of-fact chirping of the short winter days has been replaced by song.  From all directions, from out of the fields and the bushes and the trees, come the voices of the unseen singers.  The music continues into the night.

  Flowers and Moonlight on the Spring River

The evening river is level and motionless --
The spring colours just open to their full.
Suddenly a wave carries the moon away
And the tidal water comes with its freight of stars.

Yang-ti (Seventh Century A.D.) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918), page 92.

Trevor Makinson, "Maryhill Goods Yard"